Commentary Human Rights

Demanding Abuse-Free Porn Is Great—But What About Everything Else We Buy?

We have a duty, as consumers, to try and ascertain if the products we buy are made in abusive or coercive situations. That's true whether we like the products or not.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament rejected a proposed ban on “all forms of pornography,” including online porn, throughout the continent. This news elicited a variety of reactions, including a piece by The Guardian contributor Tanya Gold, in which she argued that porn should be certified by a committee of “authentic feminists” before it is published—or, at the very least, consumers should learn how porn is made and where it comes from.

I am not sure what an “authentic feminist” is, and I do not particularly like the idea of someone with a specific mindset deciding what I get to see or read. I do, however, agree with the notion that we, as consumers, have a duty to try and ascertain if the products we buy are made in abusive or coercive situations.

But why only porn?

What about diamonds? Watchdog groups have long reported torture, slave-like situations, and the use of child labor in diamond mines in several countries, including Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone. Profits from diamond mines have fueled conflicts for decades, contributing to the deaths of thousands of civilians. Yet the diamond market continues to grow, both worldwide and in the United States. In the United States, this is likely linked to the fact that many women, for reasons I cannot fathom, find getting married without a sizeable diamond engagement ring objectionable, if not impossible. In fact, over 80 percent of U.S. women who get married receive a diamond engagement ring, averaging over $3,000 a piece. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the most frequent question women ask about engagement rings is “How much did it cost?”—not “Was anyone harmed while producing this?”

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And how about shoes? A recent study released by Stop Child Labor examined 28 shoe-producing companies and found that at least eight used child labor at some point in their supply chain. Moreover, the study concluded that none of the 28 companies could guarantee that child labor was not used in their production chain, because they only supervise the final link in that chain. But how many of us first think about child labor when we see a gorgeous pair of heels or go shopping for new sneakers?

The same is true for chocolate. As a recent Oxfam campaign documented, women who pick cocoa beans used in products manufactured by the world’s largest chocolate companies are regularly subjected to labor rights abuses, including low pay, excessively long hours, and sex discrimination. Cocoa sold with the Fair Trade label, which guarantees a certain level of pay and labor rights, represents only about 0.5 percent of the current cocoa market worldwide. So it’s fair to assume that very few people think about such worker conditions before they buy a candy bar.

I’ve deliberately mentioned products that are indulgences, because none of us needs diamonds, chocolate, or multiple pairs of shoes. So in these cases, it would be possible for us to ask the right questions and refrain from buying products fueled by abuse. But most of us do not. Why is that?

One reason is transparency. As in the case of the shoe suppliers, it’s not always possible to determine whether a shoe company sources its products using child labor, because watchdog groups cannot always see through the multiple supply chain links. Sometimes even the companies themselves have a hard time with that.

Another reason is convenience. I know environmentalist vegans who smoke, ignoring what tobacco farming does to the environment and farm workers. And I know Fair Trade lobbyists who drink Diet Coke like it’s water, even though Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries have had their share of alleged child labor issues. In short, I know any number of people who choose to examine some of the products they consume in detail but leave the rest alone. I am OK with that. As someone clever once said, the examined life is no picnic. We all choose our battles.

This does not mean governments can abdicate their responsibility to implement and enforce human and labor rights. And it does not mean that we shouldn’t demand transparency in sourcing for everything we consume. Pornography, like shoes and diamonds and chocolate, should be abuse-free.

It does, however, mean that it is hypocritical to demand abuse-free products only for things we don’t use or like. In her piece, Tanya Gold compares porn to meat (another product we don’t really need), arguing that we should demand the same transparency for both. I say we should demand transparency for all products and then leave people to decide which, of the abuse-free alternatives, they want to consume.

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